HIS GRANDSON RECALLS:
To his contemporaries Thomas Nast was unquestionably America’s greatest and most effective political cartoonist, attacking corruption with a brilliant and often vitriolic pen, harrying the bosses, creating the political symbols that still remain the emblems of our two major political parties. His grandson’s impression is quite different. He remembers him as a gentle and witty companion, as the creator of our conception of Santa Claus, as a sad and lonely man whose life ended poignantly in a foreign land. Harper & Row, whose predecessor company first published m i8go a collection of Mast’s Christmas pictures, will reprint later this month Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race , with a new text by that grandson, Thomas Mast St. Hill. The following article is excerpted from this biographical reminiscence.
My grandfather Thomas Nast, America’s most famous political cartoonist and the creator of the image of Santa Claus as we recognize him today, was born in 1840 in a military barracks in Landau, Bavaria, where his father was a musician in the gth Regiment Bavarian Band. The elder Nast, my great-grandfather, while not an agitator, was a man of liberal ideas; and in view of the political turmoil then prevalent in Germany his friendly commandant suggested that America might be a better place for a man so fond of free speech. So it was that my grandfather, then six years old, and his mother and older sister departed for the United States in 1846 and settled in New York. Nast senior followed four years later after serving out his enlistment. Upon his arrival in New York he found employment in the orchestra of Burton’s Theatre on Chambers Street and became a member of the Philharmonic Society.
As soon as they were settled in New York, Thomas and his older sister were entered in one of the city’s public schools. The young German boy was handicapped by not being able to speak a word of English. Furthermore, it soon became apparent that my grandfather was no scholar. His only interest was in drawing, and after six years of regular schooling his parents decided to transfer him to art school. Here he proved an apt pupil, but his father found that the tuition was prohibitive on a musician’s wages. Consequently, at age fifteen Thomas Nast’s formal education was abruptly ended, and he went out into the world to earn his living. Surprisingly, he was offered a job following his first interview.
When the roly-poly German boy appeared in the office of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper , a popular weekly published in New York, he was ushered into the presence of publisher Frank Leslie, to whom he showed some of his sketches and explained that he would like to draw for the magazine. Seeking to impress the aspiring fifteen-year-old with the absurdity of his request, Leslie gave him an assignment. It was to go down to the Christopher Street ferry-house in lower Manhattan during the rush hour and draw a picture of the crowd boarding the boat. To the publisher’s great surprise the young artist returned with a very commendable picture that won him a job as illustrator with Leslie’s at a salary of four dollars a week. For several years thereafter Nast’s drawings appeared in the magazine, and it was during this time that he drew his first cartoons attacking civic dishonesty.
It was fortunate that my grandfather went to work when he did, for in 1858 his father died, and the artist, then eighteen, was obliged to contribute to the support of his mother. Not long afterward Leslie’s was forced to cut salaries because of financial problems, and young Nast left the magazine and went to work in a friend’s art studio. While there he made his first drawing for Harper’s Weekly , and in 1859 a page of his pictures depicting the police scandal in New York City was accepted by the magazine.
During these years young Thomas met and fell in love with Sarah Edwards, a cultured and charming young lady of English parentage, who would later become his wife— and my grandmother. Although his wages had increased to twenty dollars a week, Nast was hardly in a position to ask Miss Edwards’ hand in marriage. Accordingly, when an offer came to join the staff of the New York Illustrated News at twice his current salary, he jumped at it.
Next came an opportunity to go abroad for the News and send back pictures of the Heenan-Sayers heavyweight championship fight in England. Nast accepted the assignment, hoping that by so doing he could acquire the necessary nest egg on which to get married.
In February, 1860, the artist, not yet twenty years old, sailed for England, very much in love, as his letters home revealed, but not quite sure that his Sally would be waiting for him when he returned.
Thomas Nast’s trip abroad lasted a year and included a stint in Italy covering Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign to liberate his native country from Austrian domination. When Nast arrived home, he had hardly improved his fortunes. In fact, he had only a dollar and a half in his pocket. But Sally was still waiting faithfully for him, and he was no longer deterred from pressing his suit.
He went back to work for the News and finally prevailed upon Sally’s parents to consent to their marriage, which took place on September 26, 1861, the day before Thomas Nast’s twenty-first birthday. The bride was twenty.
Earlier that year, when the Civil War had broken out, my grandfather had considered enlisting; but those who knew of his talents convinced him that he could better serve his country with his pencil than with a sword. Thus it was that the young bridegroom began covering the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly . Then in July, 1863, he went to the front as artist on the scene for that magazine. His Civil War drawings attracted nationwide attention, and the young artist’s reputation grew.
For the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus, inspired by a poem composed forty years earlier by Clement Clarke Moore. Professor Moore had made up “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” for the amusement of his six small children and hadn’t even thought of publishing it. But his wife had recorded the poem in the family Bible; subsequently it had made its way into print. Nast apparently read the poem sometime in 1862 and drew Santa Claus, with sleigh and reindeer, much as Moore had described him.
This Christmas drawing marks the first appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today. So it may be said that Clement Clarke Moore, a learned American professor of Biblical languages, and Thomas Nast, a young German-born artist, gave the world a new image of St. Nicholas and one that would live in the hearts of children for generations to come.
Thomas Nast covered the Civil War for Harper’s for its entire duration, and his cartoons so stirred the hearts of Northerners that President Lincoln referred to him as the Union’s best recruiting sergeant. When the fighting was over, General Grant was to say that Thomas Nast had done as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end, a remarkable tribute to the young cartoonist.
Nast’s relationship with Harper’s was firmly established by 1865, and in the twenty years to follow, the magazine and the artist would become champions of honesty in government and bulwarks of Republicanism.
In 1870 Nast launched an attack on New York’s corrupt Tweed Ring. While his campaign against Boss Tweed is familiar to students of American history, it is less well known that in 1871 my grandfather refused a bribe of a half million dollars to call off his attacks and go abroad to study art. Tweed did not so much mind what the papers printed about him, he said, because most of his constituents couldn’t read but they could see “them damn pictures.”
Failing in its attempt to bribe Nast, the Tweed Ring next threatened the publisher of Harper’s by throwing all of the company’s textbooks out of the city schools and ordering the Tweed-controlled board of education to reject all future Harper & Brothers bids for school books. Harper’s board of directors almost capitulated, but Nast’s loyal friend Fletcher Harper stood by him and the fight went on. Nast continued his campaign against the Ring despite threats against his life, vowing that he would see them all in jail before he stopped. When suspicious-looking characters were observed loitering about his home in upper Manhattan and the friendly police captain in the neighborhood was suddenly transferred to another precinct, Nast decided that it was time to move his family out of the city. It was at this time that he bought Villa Fontana in suburban Morristown, New Jersey, which was to be my grandparents’ home for the next thirty years.
Thomas Nast’s cartoon The Tammany Tiger Loose , which appeared as a double-page spread in Harper’s just before the fall elections in 1871, is considered one of the most powerful cartoons of all time and was principally responsible for the defeat of the Tweed Ring at the polls a few days later. It was printed from a wood engraving, and all of Tweed’s gang are clearly identifiable.
After being prosecuted for having looted the city of over thirty million dollars in the course of thirty months, members of the Ring were jailed, but Tweed himself managed to escape to Europe. There he was captured and returned to the United States. Ironically Tweed was apprehended in Spain on a charge of kidnapping, though this was one crime of which he had never been guilty. Authorities in this country, at a loss to understand the charge, later learned that Tweed had been recognized from a Nast cartoon that showed Tweed in prison garb with two little ragamuffins in tow. This was a cartoon that my grandfather had drawn some years earlier to illustrate Tweed’s expressed willingness, when seeking the governorship of New York State, to bring all manner of minor thieves to justice.
When Tweed died in New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail in 1878, every one of Nast’s cartoons attacking him was found among his effects.
Thomas Nast’s part in overthrowing the Tweed Ring added to the nationwide prominence he had gained during the war. He had become a political power, every Presidential candidate that he supported having been elected. Even General Grant, upon assuming the Presidency, attributed his election to the “sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”
The symbols that Nast originated during this period were to outlive their creator. Between 1870 and 1874 the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey made their first appearances. Both were conceptions of Thomas Nast, based on the fables of Aesop. Today’s familiar images of Uncle Sam, John Bull, and Columbia also were conceived by Nast during this period.
My grandfather was a controversial character. Whereas the staunchly Republican Union League Club of New York honored him for his ardent devotion to the preservation of the Union, the New York World in 1867 accused him of bigotry and pandering to the “meanest passions and prejudices of the most unthoughtful persons of the day.” To Nast all things were either black or white. There was nothing in between. He was absolutely merciless in his attacks upon those with whom he disagreed. The Ku Klux Klan, anarchists, Communists, corrupt politicians, and even the Irish and the Catholic Church were among those upon whom he vented his wrath. Obviously one’s opinion of the artist depended largely upon whether one agreed with his views or not.
By 1877 my grandfather was a relatively wealthy man with an unusually good income in terms of that day. Not yet forty years old, he had just about everything that he could wish for —a nationwide reputation for integrity, a lovely home, a devoted wife and family, and financial independence. Sarah Nast had contributed greatly to her husband’s success. She regularly read to him as he worked. Shakespeare and the Bible were the inspirations for many of the artist’s drawings, and Sarah Nast often supplied the ideas and captions for them. My grandmother was a charming hostess and entertained her husband’s distinguished friends graciously and unostentatiously. General Grant and his wife and Mark I wain were guests on more than one occasion.
As the result of his national prominence the artist frequently received offers to lecture, few of which he accepted. It was an activity that he cordially disliked. For one thing it kept him away from his home, where he now did all of his work. Equally important was the fact that he suffered so acutely from stage fright that he often became ill before an appearance.
Some offers were hard to refuse, such as one extended by the Boston Lyceum Bureau offering ten thousand dollars for a ten-week tour. But at the time the artist was too busy with his assignments for Harper’s , work that he much preferred. Two years later he was approached again, with an offer of “a larger sum for a hundred lectures than any man living.” But Nast again declined.
In 1877, Mark Twain, Granddad’s good friend, proposed in a letter a plan that must have been very tempting: My Dear Nast: I did not think I should ever stand on a platform again until the time was come forme to say “I die innocent.” But the same old offers keep arriving. I have declined them all, just as usual, though sorely tempted, as usual.
Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but because (i) travelling alone is so heart-breakingly dreary, and (2) shouldering the whole show is such a cheer-killing responsibility.
Therefore, I now propose to you what you proposed to me in November, 1867, ten years ago (when I was unknown), viz., that you stand on the platform and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience. I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns—I don’t want to go to the little ones) with you for company.
My idea is not to fatten the lecture agents and lyceums on the spoils, but put all the ducats religiously into two equal piles, and say to the artist and lecturer, “Absorb these.” …
Call the gross receipts $100,000 for tour months and a half, and the profit from $60,000 to $75,000 (I try to make the figures large enough and leave it to the public to reduce them).
I did not put in Philadelphia because P____ owns that town, and last winter when I made a little reading-trip he only paid me $300 and pretended his concert (I read fifteen minutes in the midst of a concert) cost him a vast sum, and so he couldn’t afford any more. I could get up a better concert with a barrel of cats.…
Well, you think it over, Nast, and drop me a line. We should have some fun.
Samuel L. Clemens.
It seemed a fascinating plan, but again my grandfather had no inclination to leave his home and family, and so he again regretted.
By 1879 Thomas Nast was beginning to get restive. Changes in management at Harper’s had resulted in less freedom to express his own views. A new generation of publishers did not wholly agree with what they considered their artist’s tendency to advocate startling and, in their opinion, sometimes radical reforms. Then, too, with the introduction of new techniques in reproduction, the hand-engraved woodblock, which Nast had used to such advantage, had become outmoded and the new methods were less suited to his style. Consequently, as Nast’s drawings appeared less frequently in the Weekly , he took advantage of the opportunity to travel and invest his savings. While my grandfather would have been the last to realize it, he had, at the age of thirty-nine, reached his peak.
Nast had learned little about finance during his career as an artist, as would soon become apparent. An investment in a silver mine in Colorado proved unprofitable and became a drain on his resources. But in 1883 his financial problems seemed about to be over. His good friend General U. S. Grant had, after retiring from the Presidency, invested all of his savings in a Wall Street firm headed by Ferdinand Ward, a New York investment banker. Grant’s son, who lacked financial experience, was made a junior partner to look after his father’s interest. The venture prospered to such an extent, or so it appeared, that General Grant offered Nast an opportunity to participate, a privilege accorded only to a select few. This seemed the chance to recoup his mining losses, so the artist sold a piece of property and invested the proceeds in the firm of Grant and Ward. The generous dividends that ensued encouraged Nast to take his family abroad for a much needed rest.
It was not long after his return, however, that headlines in his morning paper announced that Grant and Ward had failed. It seemed incredible in view of the optimistic reports and liberal dividends he had been receiving. But the fact was that Ferdinand Ward had proved to be an unscrupulous manipulator who, in order to maintain the fiction of profitability, had been declaring dividends out of capital funds until there was no more capital left.
My grandfather lost everything that he had invested, while General Grant lost even more. Grant had personally guaranteed one of the firm’s notes a few days before the failure was announced and, in order to help pay off the note, had to sell everything he could get his hands on, including military trophies and souvenirs from all over the world. Not until Grant’s memoirs were published posthumously was his family able to pay off all of the General’s debts.
The disenchantment that followed Nast’s first and final experience in Wall Street was revealed in several of his pictures. One, a merciless and funny self-caricature in oil painted eighteen years later, depicts the artist’s complete bewilderment and despair at being duped. (This painting, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, hung in the White House office of Daniel P. Moynihan during the time he served as a counsellor to President Nixon. It was known among Dr. Moynihan’s colleagues as Nost Contemplating the “Bust” of Ward .)
Relations between Nast and Harper’s did not improve during the Presidential campaign of 1884, when the cartoonist found himself unable to support James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for the Presidency. For the first time Thomas Nast campaigned for a Democrat, caricaturing Blaine as the “Plumed Knight.” Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate whom Nast supported, was elected.
In 1886 came the end of Thomas Nast’s association with Harpers Weekly , a magazine that he had helped make famous and in which he had made his reputation. In the quarter century of the Nast- Harper’s relationship the nation had passed through a turbulent period, and Nast’s drawings in the magazine would provide a vivid pictorial chronicle of those years. But in terminating his connection with Harper’s Nast lost his forum, while at the same time the Weekly lost its political importance.
Several years later my grandfather tried starting his own paper, but this venture, too, failed, leaving the artist heavily in debt. Nast consoled himself, however, that he had lost no one’s money but his own. Now came the time when horses and carriages had to be sold, faithful servants dismissed, and a mortgage placed on the house.
It was like manna from heaven, therefore, when in 1889 his old friends at Harper’s proposed that he get together a collection of his Christmas drawings for publication in book form, a very Christmaslike gesture and one that my grandfather gratefully accepted.
Thomas Nast’s book Christmas Drawings for the Human Race was published in time for the 1890 Christmas season. It contained pictures that had appeared in Christmas issues of Harper’s over a period of thirty years as well as some additional drawings made especially for the book. Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was again the inspiration for many of the new Christmas drawings, and Santa Claus was now depicted as the very embodiment of merriment and good cheer.
It seemed fitting that Thomas Nast’s last assignment for Harper’s should be on a theme transcending the fortunes of politics, thus giving the artist an opportunity to include all humans in his message of Christmas good will, regardless of their race, creed, or political affiliation.
My earliest personal memories of my grandfather relate to the many times that I visited the Morristown home in the years just before and after the turn of the century. I was fortunate in being a favorite of his as a boy, no doubt because my mother, Edith Nast, was very close to her father and I was his eldest grandson.
Following the publication of his Christmas Drawings for the Human Race in 1890, my grandfather spent a great deal of his time in his studio at home, painting. He seemed to find peace and relaxation in quietly working on his canvases. The days of the crusading cartoonist who sometimes dipped his pen in vitriol were past. Thomas Nast, the painter, was a gentler person and the only one that this grandson ever knew.
Most of my grandfather’s paintings had to do with Civil War subjects, many of them based on sketches he had made on the scene thirty years earlier. His huge canvas showing New York’s famous jth Regiment marching down Broadway on its way to war in April of 1861 and his Peace in Union painting depicting the surrender scene at Appomattox four years later have been widely reproduced and are recognized for their historical accuracy. Ina different vein was his Immortal Light of Genius , a tribute to William Shakespeare, a replica of which hung in the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon, England. It was stored during enemy bombing attacks in World War II but was, unfortunately, irreparably damaged. Thomas Nast’s Head of Christ , acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan, was loaned by Morgan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, where it was once shown.
Had Thomas Nast followed his early aspiration to become a painter, he might well have earned recognition in that field rather than as a cartoonist. As it was, his training was not such as to gain him the reputation in the field of art that he was to win in caricature. Critics have acknowledged that his paintings, while they appear labored, have a heavy power and deserve more recognition than they have received.
Most of my grandfather’s paintings were commissioned by old friends; and while payments were liberal, income from this source was insufficient to support his family.
During his painting years the artist often hung his paintings next to a large window to dry in the sun, sometimes upside-down or sideways. Included among these were his self-caricature and his head of Christ. On one occasion during this period the delivery of my grandfather’s daily paper was suddenly discontinued. Upon complaining to the distributor, he learned that the young boy who used to deliver the papers had seen what he thought to be strange people looking out of the window. The paper boy concluded that the house was haunted; and when he finally saw the Lord himself peering out of the window, he was definitely through and would deli ver no more papers to that house!
Of course, I was not old enough to appreciate that my grandfather was having financial problems; but I later learned that it distressed him that he was unable to be as generous to his family and friends as he had been during his more affluent years.
I recall Thomas Nast as a relatively short man, perhaps five feet six or seven, always impeccably dressed in dark jacket with boutonniere, waistcoat with gold watch chain, a stickpin in his ascot tie, and gray striped trousers such as worn with a cutaway. He was very distinguished looking with his gray hair, which was always tousled, his Vandyke beard, and flowing mustaches. He wore a wide-brimmed fedora and carried a silver-headed cane, which he often tucked under his arm as he strode along. There was something of the actor in him, and he was, in fact, a member of The Players, a club in New York whose membership roster included most of the leading actors of the day, as well as some artists and musicians.
My grandfather took me to the club on several occasions, but I cannot say that I recall any of the stage celebrities I met there. Strange as it may seem, the character I most clearly recall from one of those visits was the traffic policeman at a busy intersection nearby. The officer tipped his helmet and greeted my grandfather by name as we crossed the street together, whereupon we stopped in the middle of the crowded thoroughfare as I was introduced. A very proud moment!
From time to time my grandfather took me to the theatre or circus in New York, and on one such occasion I recall going backstage to meet the famous actor Joseph Jefferson, who played Rip in Rip Van Winkle . I was even more impressed that Buffalo Bill was a friend of my grandfather’s. I can still recall the shooting of the cowboys and the yelping of the Indian warriors in Buffalo Bill’s exciting Wild West show. And I remember seeing Annie Oakley shoot clay pigeons from every conceivable posture. The show was presented in Madison Square Garden, and I wondered why the bullets from Annie Oakley’s gun didn’t kill some of the audience, not realizing that she used a shotgun, not a rifle. Tickets to most of the performances we attended together were free passes, known at the time as Annie Oakleys because they had holes punched in them, as though perforated by Annie’s shotgun.
Among the most treasured souvenirs of my relationship with my grandfather are three sketches commemorating our first spree together. I was seven years old at the time. The first of these, sent on Valentine’s Day, 1902, announced in rhyme that we were to go on a spree the following Wednesday. My mother had arranged to provide the necessary funds for the outing. The next sketch, five days later, is a message that speaks for itself. It shows my grandfather sitting on the edge of his chair, hat on, cane in hand, ready and eager to be off. But the dollar sign and the question mark on his travelling bag tell the story. The check has not arrived! The problem was apparently solved before the big day, however, as the final sketch shows us marching joyfully down the street after attending a matinee at the Broadway Theatre. The description of our first spree as having been “done up Brown” refers to our luncheon at Brown’s, a well-known chophouse for men in New York at the time.
That Thomas Nast was conscious of his short stature is evidenced by the caricatures he sometimes drew of himself standing on something to give him height. In one such cartoon he showed himself on a chair delivering a speech. The occasion was a Canvasback Club dinner at Harvey’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. He had become separated from his baggage on the train and was obliged to appear in his business suit instead of white tie and tails. He made up for his unsuitable attire in the cartoon, however, which shows him in formal dress, with an apologetic caption that says: How He Should Have Appeared . This cartoon, together with one he drew of his host, the late George W. Harvey, still hangs on the wall of the famous Washington restaurant. Mr. Harvey once stated that he had several times refused offers of a thousand dollars for the drawings.
Other sketches that I prize highly reveal Thomas Nast’s cleverness and sense of humor. Before I was old enough to write, I sometimes enclosed in my mother’s letters to her father pictures that I had drawn myself. They showed no evidence that I had inherited any of the artist’s talent. Several of my drawings were returned after “Pop Tom,” as I called him, had worked them into sketches of his own, like one in which he made my drawing appear on an easel before which he stood appraising the work of his latest “Rival in the Art field.” Others showing his shocked incredulity on viewing his grandson’s art were similarly returned. And when I was unable to draw a fish, he made a sketch of a fish “drawing” me.
Thomas Nast’s original sketches were highly valued by recipients, and they often took the place of formal correspondence. He blamed his reluctance to write on his pen, which he said did not know how to spell. He was a notoriously bad speller and sometimes mistakes crept into his captions, such as “Budy” for “Buddy,” my childhood nickname, in the fish sketch. Fortunately Sarah Nast corrected most of his misspelled captions before they appeared.
I remember seeing my grandfather at work in his home studio. I recall particularly the three-foot-high bronze statue The Gladiator above his roll-top desk and his pet mockingbird in a cage close by. As I now realize, the statue of the gladiator was symbolic, in that it represented one who, like Thomas Nast himself, engaged in fierce combat or controversy. The studio was on the second floor; and when the mockingbird heard his master’s footsteps ascending the stairs, he would whistle to him and receive a whistle in reply. The bird had quite a repertoire and always responded to the attention paid to him by repeating the sounds he heard. When the artist was busy and had not taken notice of his feathered friend for some time, the bird would pick up a piece of gravel from the bottom of the cage and throw it at him.
My recollections of Villa Fontana as it was seventy years ago are still vivid. It was an imposing three-story house with mansard roof and widow’s walk, set well back from the street, from which it was hidden by tall evergreen trees. It was in one of Morristown’s better residential neighborhoods, but at the time sadly in need of paint. The fountain, for which the house was named, was beside the driveway that led to the front entrance, but it was dry when I played in it as a boy. Large brown toads hopped about among the dead leaves that covered the bottom of the pool’s big round basin. The heavy gate across the driveway was closed, and its hinges were rusty. It had not been opened since General Grant’s carriage drove out in 1883. The inside of the house was somber, with curtains drawn in all rooms not being used. Certain memories of childhood remain very clear, and I recall especially the steamy atmosphere of the gas-lit second-floor bathroom as boiling hot water poured out of the faucet into the wood-encased, copper-lined bathtub, the height of elegance in Victorian plumbing fixtures. The fireplaces were surrounded by tiles depicting the artist’s favorite Mother Goose rhymes and fables of Aesop. The motto “Time and Tide Wait for No Man,” carved above one fireplace mantel, was beyond my comprehension but made a lasting impression on me.
Thomas Nast loved everything in nature, often staying up late at night to watch the stars and explain astronomy to his children. A story was told about the time he was sitting with a group before an open fire at The Players one cold wintry day and asked his friends if they would like to go out with him to see a great sight. Only one hardy soul cared to brave the weather. They had walked a few blocks when my grandfather stopped before a large plate-glass window covered with frost crystals. This was the great sight! His friend at first thought it was a joke but was soon convinced that Pop Tom was deadly serious; and he had to admit it was beautiful.
In his younger days Thomas Nast had enjoyed walking and horseback riding, although his riding days were over when I knew him. He loved animals, particularly cats, greyhounds, pugs, and terriers, as evidenced by their prominence in his drawings. When one of his dogs was poisoned, he was so distressed that he could not eat.
My memories of my grandmother, Sarah Nast, during these days are equally vivid. I recall her as a lovely, even-tempered lady who maintained her patrician bearing as she went quietly about her work presiding over the servantless Nast household. I never heard her speak a complaining or cross word, even during the later years when she was to make a home for me after my mother’s death. I was fourteen years old at that time, and my grandmother was in her middle seventies. She saw me through a very trying period until I was ready to go away to college. I still remember the times when we were invited to dine with my Uncle Cyril and his wife, who lived nearby. I was a prodigious milk drinker; and in order to make sure that I enjoyed my daily ration, my grandmother would, to my embarrassment, carry with her a large pitcher of milk, holding it before her in order not to spill any as we walked along the city street together. Sarah Nast died at the age of ninety-two, outliving her husband by thirty years.
Would that I had asked my grandmother the many questions about my grandfather to which I would now like to have the answers. But as Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in her delightful Family Portrait , one seldom begins to care about one’s ancestors until reaching the age of fifty.
What bothered my grandfather most as the century came to a close was that he was heavily in debt. But he was not one to complain, even though he sometimes had to rely upon his talents to pay his doctor, dentist, and lawyer, by painting their portraits for them. I was told that he once paid a tax collector in this manner, although how the collector settled with the taxing authority is not quite clear.
This lack of money was my grandfather’s constant problem when, in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency of the United States. Roosevelt, himself a fighter for the things in which he believed, had long admired a similar spirit in Thomas Nast. So, wishing to do something to help him in his adversity, the President offered him an appointment as consul general in Ecuador. The offer was made in a letter from Secretary of State John Hay, advising that unfortunately this was the only post available at the time. As Hay wrote : The President would like to put it at your disposition, but if you think it too far away and too little amusing to a man with the soul of an artist, please say so frankly, and he will keep you in mind if anything better should turn up: but it is heartbreaking business waiting for vacancies. Our service is so edifying and preservative that few die and nobody resigns.
It was not an assignment that appealed to my grandfather, involving as it did business duties for which he was not at all qualified. But as he was desperately in need of funds, the four-thousand-dollar-a-year stipend seemed a godsend to the artist, who in his heyday had earned that much in a single month. He gratefully accepted the offer. It was a case of any port in a storm.
At the time he was notified of his appointment, Thomas Nast was working on a painting of the defeated General Robert E. Lee as he awaited the arrival of General Grant at Appomattox Court House. It was to be called The Hour of Surrender . The painting was never finished, but a photograph was taken of the artist as he stood before his canvas, palette in hand. No doubt the disappointments experienced in later life had better enabled Thomas Nast to understand the anguish suffered by the great southern leader. Looking at the photograph, one wonders who looks the sadder, the artist or the General. It was the hour of surrender for both.
When the time drew near for his departure for Ecuador, the consul-to-be got off one of his clever sketches advising Secretary Hay that he was ready to leave.
Guayaquil, the principal port in Ecuador, where the consulate was located, had recently been ravaged by fire, and the climate would have been difficult for a much younger man to endure. Nast was sixty-one years old at the time. In addition, sanitary conditions were poor and yellow fever was prevalent. When a friend asked my grandfather why he was going to such a forsaken spot, he replied that he wanted to learn how to pronounce the name of the place.
One of the qualities that had contributed so much to Thomas Nast’s success as a political cartoonist was his uncanny ability to foresee future events. The same characteristic was now apparent as he left for his new post. Among the sketches that he handed out to reporters as his ship was about to sail was one of himself shaking with trepidation as he stood on the red-hot equator, while “Yellow Jack,” symbolic of yellow fever, popped out of a box and pestilential fumes poured out of a volcano in the background.
My grandfather departed from New York by steamer in July, 1902, convinced, as revealed in a sketch that he left behind, that he would never return. He sailed without friends or family to see him off. He could not bear the thought of such a parting.
The letters he wrote home to my grandmother were sad yet so revealing of his true character that it seems fitting to quote from some of them. Here was a man who had known the good things of life—a devoted family, a lovely home, a host of friends, and the esteem of his countrymen— living out his life in a pesthole in order to pay off his obligations.
Shortly after his arrival in Guayaquil in July he wrote to his wife: I don’t know what I am about, really. The fire, the yellow fever and the dirt do not help to clear one’s mind.
Things are really working very slowly. I have a bath but no water as yet. The cry is, “to-morrow, to-morrow,” and their to-morrow is longer in coming than it is in the States. I am still well, but the people say here that I shall be laid up with a chill.…
They told me to be careful of the night air. Can’t see how it can be kept out. There is not a pane of glass in the whole city.… The river is so close … when the tide is out the smell is in; when it comes back again it washes the smell away.
The picture of you and the grandchildren is up. As I look at it and see all laughing, I laugh too. It does seem funny that I am here, but my greatest happiness is that you are not here.
The picture referred to was a photograph taken in 1898 on the steps of the Morristown home. My grandmother, Sarah Nast, grinning like a Cheshire cat, is surrounded by her five grandchildren. Attired in sailor suit, with bosun’s whistle in my pocket, I am seated in the front row between my two cousins Muriel Nast Crawford (the late Mrs. Donald E. Battey) on my right, and on my left, in ruffled dress and flower-bedecked hat, her brother, the late John William Roy Crawford, Jr., both children of Mabel Nast Crawford. Thomas Nast Crawford, the youngest of the Crawford children and the only one of us to inherit any of his grandfather’s artistic ability, is seated on his grandmother’s lap. My sister Edith, eldest of the grandchildren, is on the right in the back row. She died of diphtheria two years later. It was a happy group, and little wonder that my grandfather laughed too as he looked at it. It added a cheery note to his otherwise dreary surroundings.
Two other grandchildren, Sarah Nast and Thomas Nast in, children of Cyril Nast, had not been born when this picture was taken. Thomas Nast III I are now the only surviving grandchildren of Thomas and Sarah Nast.
Conditions did not improve in Guayaquil. On August 12 my grandfather wrote home : Am well, that’s all.… About four dead as near as I can make out, but the doctors say it was the genuine yellow fever.… Mice, rats, bats, mosquitoes, fleas, spiders and dirt all thrive. I haven’t had a real bath yet. There is not enough to fill the tub.…
Have to buy a bed, mattress, pillows, sheets and so forth, and set up housekeeping myself.…
Oh, the people are very poor. Times are hard—no work, nothing doing. I am so glad no one else came.…
How he must have yearned for the comforts of his home, including the water in his copper-lined bathtub!
A month ago I took charge of this office … only a month—heavens! How long it seems! Well, I must make the best of it. I hate the place, but don’t say anything about that!
Yellow fever was now so rampant that ships from the North carrying mail no longer stopped at Guayaquil. Sometimes they dropped off the mail on their return trip from southern ports. It was exasperating to the consul to see a steamer in the stream unable to put ashore the letters from home that he knew must be on board.
It would go hard indeed for me if it were not for the Ashtons [Mr. Ashton was the British vice consul], because one needs somebody—in case—well—trouble of any kind. But I must not give in. If sticking will do it, stick I will. It does bring in more money than I can make at home and time may do something, too.
I think I am too old to catch the fever. I have a little hope left yet. Let’s stick on for another year, anyway.…
You say my poor old mocking bird misses me. I am very sorry. I do miss him, poor fellow, and his mocking sounds.
This change has done me good in spite of everything. It is true there is a great deal of fever in this place, but I hope I shall escape it. They look at me and say “Well, you have not blue eyes. You are more like a native, and you are too old to catch it.” What a blessing to be old. One is going to the next world soon, anyway, so one is exempt. For the first time I feel glad that I am old.
Everything very quiet. The so-called “best people” have made their exits on account of the yellow fever. The steamers do not stop here. They go on south. That alarms these people still more.…
Every day from two to four cases of yellow fever. Nearly all fatal. The Germans have the hardest time.…
I can save more money now as I don’t have dinner at night any more. At first I had to, I was so hungry.…
Now that steamers had ceased to call at the port of Guayaquil because of the yellow fever scare, there was little for the American consul to do. His job involved representing his government in all matters of trade; and when there was no trade, time hung heavily on his hands.
Well, well, what with painting, when I am able to do it (it dries so slowly), and what with the Encyclopeadia Britannica I manage to kill time. I have been reading it steadily and enjoy it very much. Knowledge is a great thing, but what a nuisance to find out how little we know, no matter how long we live and how much we study.
Your letter just came. You may say that you have nothing to write about, but write anything, even about the October days, the turning of the leaves. It makes me homesick, but I’d rather be homesick than have any other kind of sickness. Most of the people here look as if they were already dead.…
Then followed reports of several friends and associates who had succumbed to the fever.
And then came what was probably the saddest letter of all, dated November 21, 1902: You say the money arrived safely and it is in the bank. Just think of it! Bills paid, and money, real money, in the bank again.… And so Mr. T____ thinks I should get leave of absence from a place where I am making money? No, I must stick it out, no matter what takes place. I do think I am making an impression, too, on the State Department. They have sent no complaints at all, and they may promote me, at least I hope so—and leave of absence would cost too much. I must stick. Now my job is all right, if we only get a little money ahead.…
How pitiful to think of the famous artist at sixty-two, hoping to make good on his four-thousand-dollar-a-year job so that he would be promoted.
I am anxious to hear from you—something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day.
There was but one letter after this, a brief note on Sunday, November 30. The following day he complained of a little nausea, and by Saturday doctors pronounced his case as the fever in its worst form. On Sunday, December 7, he died, far from home and loved ones.
In his roll-top desk in the Morristown house was found the prophetic sketch made before his departure for Ecuador. It was a picture of his drawing materials, with his pencil and pen tied with black ribbon.